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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Complete Piano Works
Valse folle [2:40]
Dix Pièces de genre, Op. 10 [20:35]
Musique pour Bercer les petits enfants [2:39]
Toccata [2:02]
Deux impressions [5:58]
Valse très lente [5:55]
Deux Pièces [4:11]
Un momento musicale [4:00]
Sept Improvisations [21:48]
Devant la Madonne [3:24]
Le Cid: Aragonaise (transcription) [1:31]
Meditation (from Thaïs) transcription [4:56]
Maurizio Zaccaria (piano)
rec. 2013, Teatro Comunale, Atri, Italy.
AEAVA AE16003 [80:12]

The piano music of Massenet has been recorded several times before by various pianists but here we have a recent recording by the Italian pianist Maurizio Zaccaria. Massenet is obviously best known for his operas but, as this recording attests, he also wrote quite a number of piano works. Most of these are short ‘character’ pieces and were written at various times during his career with the earliest dating from 1875 and the latest from 1907.

The first piece on the disc is a suitably cheerful little waltz which has a very weird beginning which is quite unexpected! To start with, it seems to inhabit the same sound world as Liszt’s late waltzes but changes to something more harmonically normal as the piece progresses. The middle section is more galumphing before transitioning back to something more waltz- like. Overall, this is a witty little piece full of charm and some very strange key changes and mood changes. It also sounds rather difficult.

Next follows a set of 10 little character pieces. Firstly, we have a rather lovely little Nocturne which is very tender and amiable. The following March is much more powerful and bounces along nicely and happily, perhaps it is more of a children’s view of a march? This piece divides into two parts with a very satisfying interlude section before the marching theme returns to round off proceedings. Next is a peaceful Barcarolle, nothing like Chopin’s masterpiece – this is much tenderer overall and there are some really gorgeous harmonies here. Track 5 is another fast piece, a Rigodon. Once again, this is happy music, played with a smile. Then we have a more sombre Melodie – subtitled Elegie which is more sweet than sad. Continuing the olden style of the suite, the following piece is a Sartarelle which proceeds rapidly and almost threatens to break into a Tarantella (in fact, if I hadn’t known it from the notes to be a Sartarelle, I would have assumed that it was a tarantella and a good one at that!). Next we have ‘Vielle Chanson’ – fitting well with what has gone before and in a similar vein to the other slower pieces in this set. After this is a ‘Légende’ which has an interesting and virtuosic central section marked Presto before returning to the slower music of the outset and ending very touchingly. The ninth piece is a little ‘Fughetta’, in which the themes are excellently wound around one another and with quirky charm. To finish, we have a piece entitled ‘Carillon’ which is an excellent imitation of bells and full of difficulties for the pianist. In retrospect, the pieces in this set of 10 do not sound in the same league of difficulty as the opening waltz, they are pleasant to listen to and all are charming and excellently played.

The following piece is a Berceuse in all but name and is entitled Musique pour Bercer les petits enfants. It’s just a very lovely little creation. To wake you up after the little children’s slumbering, the following piece is a Toccata – this starts with a bang and whizzes off around the keyboard. This is a virtuosic little piece and splendidly controlled by the pianist. As earlier in the disc, this is happy music, something which Massenet seemed to excel at. I would like to hear this piece as an encore in a concert as I think it would work extremely well.

The following 2 pieces form a set connected with depictions of water. The first is slow and serene and the second much more agitated. The atmosphere of calm in the first piece is excellently controlled by the careful use of the pedal creating an impressionistic haze in the bass while the right hand provides the melody. ‘Vite’ is more of a waterfall of notes, getting faster and faster as it progresses and the key slowly meanders from place to place. The ending contains some very strange harmonies and fades away into nothing. These two short pieces make an excellent contrasted pair.

The next track is the single longest piece on the disc – clocking in at just less than 6 minutes. This is a slow waltz, but again is only slow to begin with. The first contrasting part is humorous in nature before the slow music returns again only to lead into further different material. The opening slow music returns several times during this work and frames an absolutely gorgeous little piece, which is marvellously played.

After waltzing for a few minutes, we have two depictions of Butterflies, one black and one white. These are the latest works on the disc (from 1907) and tend more towards an impressionistic mood. There are some very strange harmonies here, especially in the first of the two pieces. The second, white, butterfly is more restrained than the previous one and more tonal although the end is very sprightly and odd. Again, there is a sense of amusement throughout this music.

Track 19 is Un Momento musicale dating from 1897, starting with a beautiful theme and gradually becoming more and more active. There is a really powerful and dissonant outburst at around 2:20 which comes as a complete surprise in comparison to how the piece began. Thereafter, things calm down again before the piece finishes peacefully.

The following pieces make up another set, this time of 7 pieces grouped under the title of Improvisations. It is not stated in the notes if this is how they started out, but the title seems appropriate. Firstly, we have an ‘Andantino’ containing some more lovely melodies and attractive piano writing. An ‘Allegretto’ follows graciously onwards, in a similar vein but with a more agitated second subject in a minor key, for contrast, and a rather affecting ending. More slow music follows for the third of these pieces, however this is actually rather sombre – it’s the saddest piece on the whole disc with a sense of tragedy underlying it. The mood is lightened by the following ‘Allegretto scherzando’ which is a return to sunnier climes. This bounces along in a comedic way before a chordal part (which seems to join the piece together) interrupts, almost like an argument between two people. At one point, the piece stops dead, hovering in mid-air before the dialogue starts up again. This is further interrupted with a section that sounds like someone should set some suitably romantic poem to it and turn it into a chanson. The argument returns and leads to the end of the piece and a peaceful resolution. Piece 5 from this set is an ‘Andante’ full of strumming chords and a remarkable melody and ends very quietly, drifting off into the ether. The ‘Allegro deciso’ afterwards is another wake-up call with lots of octave work for the left hand and some awkward sounding trills. The contrasted middle part of the piece is a complex fugue which is excellently played, so that all of the lines can be followed clearly. The fugue falls apart into some loud chords and the return of the octaves and the trills before a pious sounding part at 1:40 played with both pedals down. The music from the start returns loudly and is developed into the conclusion of the piece which is brash, loud and triumphant. The last piece in this set is another candidate for a chanson and is, like much of the music on this disc, delightful and merry. The middle section is louder and more confident-sounding and provides the pianist with a chance to show off his/her technique. It ends quietly, with a sense of tranquillity. Overall, this is a rather interesting little set of pieces which contains some of the most contrasted music on this disc.

The next 3 and a bit minutes are taken up with a piece entitled Devant la Madonne – obviously this has religious overtones and sounds like a hymn. This piece has some unsettling harmonies in the middle but overall is a peaceful short meditation.

The disc ends with 2 transcriptions although the disc does not give any idea who the transcribers were (or are). The first of these is the ‘Aragonaise’ from Le Cid which works extremely well and sounds extremely difficult to play. Suffice to say, Mr. Zaccaria copes with the virtuosity required here extremely well and his playing is impeccable. The disc concludes with Massenet’s best-known work, the ‘Meditation’ from Thais. Having reviewed a CD some months ago of a recording of Saint-Saëns fantasy on Thais which includes the ‘Meditation’ (review), I have to say I prefer this transcription by whoever it’s by. Listening to this, you would not believe the piece was written for any other medium than the piano. The control in the quieter sections is superb and overall the piece works splendidly.

On first listening, I didn’t really enjoy this disc but with repeated listening, I have grown to appreciate it much more. It’s nothing to do with the pianist (although I can hear the pedal all the way through the disc which is disconcerting at first) – it is to do with the music which initially sounded a little samey to me. However, I have revised my opinion hugely over time and I have to say this is an excellent disc with some really rather charming and interesting music on it. It’s well recorded by a very talented pianist who is more than capable of dealing with Massenet’s sometimes strange and awkward sounding writing for the piano. The recorded sound is also excellent and very clear. A minor criticism, the cover notes are a little short and lacking in detail but on the positive side, the disc has a very impressive running time of just over 80 minutes!
Jonathan Welsh

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